Month: August 2015

Filbert’s: Banana

History: Over the phone, Ron Filbert’s voice is old-school Bridgeport, Chicago. Somewhere between grunge-fueled Mike Ditka and classic nasally Brooklyn, his voice conveys a sense of seriousness. You can almost feel the tradition through the phone. Filbert bares the company’s name because he’s a third generation soda jerk and has been in the business since he was 12. He still brews the soda in the same Bridgeport community where his grandpa founded the company in 1926. He says, “Back in the day, root beer was the number one soft drink in the country.” Considering this was in the era of prohibition, he’s probably not joking. If people couldn’t drink beer, at least they could guzzle something still with the word in its title. Root beer continues to be Filbert’s most popular flavor out of around 30 different options. A couple others high up on the list are a little more unique: watermelon and banana. He adds that ginger beer is also rising in sales. Filbert’s falls into an interesting category in craft soda. Filbert tells us “We make our flavors in small batches,” but also notes a majority of the company’s flavors are made with high fructose corn syrup as opposed to pure cane sugar, though several do use the latter. Banana, our review today, is made with high fructose corn syrup. We’d consider Filbert’s a craft soda company because every batch is made by hand in small quantities, and also because there’s a rich tradition there. Filbert, a man of few words, made the objective when making the banana soda pretty clear. “You want it to taste like a banana. You want it to look like a banana.” Alright, then. That’s super clear-ish. What we can tell you definitely is that banana is a flavor most companies shy away from because it’s a fruit that is hard to capture accurately in liquid form. Filbert’s took a chance, so maybe you should take a chance on them.

Where to get: Being a Chicago-based company, Filbert’s is heavily distributed throughout the midwest. It’s also growing out on the west coast, but still working its way east. Luckily, you’re online purchasing options are numerous. If you’re a retailer hoping to sell soda in your store or someone looking to make a larger order, you can hit up Homer Soda. Everyday folks can go to Summit City Soda and Soda Emporium to get your fix.

Nose: Banana popsicles; faint smell of Banana Laffy Taffy. A very candy banana smell.

Taste: Tart; banana taffy; heavy carbonation. This is surprisingly tart for a banana soda. When we think banana, I think we often imagine a creamy flavor, but this is slightly acidic and mild. The banana flavor is definitely a candy banana taste more akin to a taffy than say a popsicle. The carbonation, despite the bubbles being small, is heavy throughout each sip. Fairly syrupy, probably due to the high fructose corn syrup. The banana flavor isn’t overly harsh or bold. It’s actually pretty light. But I think what you take away from the soda’s flavor most is that syrupy taste full of carbonation.

Finish: Tart banana that lingers only for a few seconds. No different from the body of the soda.

Rating: Filbert’s Banana Soda is fairly straight forward in terms of flavor, but it does what a majority of banana sodas do not: it doesn’t suck. The banana flavor is more of a candied taste, but it’s pretty light. Most banana sodas are overly harsh, so this is a welcome change. The carbonation is thick, encasing the soda’s taste. But it just feels like something is missing here, and I can pinpoint a couple ideas for improvement. First, there’s a syrupy taste to this. Undoubtedly, it’s because Filbert’s uses high fructose corn syrup in their banana soda as opposed to cane sugar. It just feels a little heavy and not as crisp as it could. I think cane sugar would make the soda’s mouth feel a little lighter and more refreshing. Second, the banana flavor is almost too mild. I’d either up the amount of banana flavor in the recipe or cut back on how intense the carbonation is in the soda. Less bubbles might unleash a more aromatic and robust banana taste. It sounds like we’re picking on this soda. We’re not. Banana is such a wonderful flavor, one of nostalgia. As kids we all enjoyed it in some fashion. Today, it hits its mark in candy, pastries, and cocktails. Soda is still searching for its banana unicorn. Until then, Filbert’s does a serviceable job filling the void.

P.S. We now reserve the right to start a nightclub called “Banana Unicorn” in the future. Dibs.

The Winemaker’s Shop: Raspberry Dragonfruit Shiraz

History: There are always whispers in the craft soda community about how closely related gourmet sodas are to the artisan side of the alcohol industry. Both place an emphasis on quality. Both are held in the highest regard of their respective beverage categories. And both share an audience. The Winemaker’s Shop in Columbus, Ohio recognized this and decided to blur the line for drinkers even more by introducing something enticingly original: wine soda. The Winemaker’s Shop, perhaps unsurprisingly, sells wine and beer kits for home brewers. But here is a surprise: the shop doesn’t sell wine or beer. They can’t. In talking to manager Ivan Francis, we learned an interesting tidbit. The Winemaker’s Shop is located in a “dry zone,” preventing the sale of alcohol. The business was founded in 1974 by Ivan’s father and prolific brewer (seriously, he has a degree in it from the Siebel Institute), Scott Francis. His son notes the entire business has “been very interwoven with the brewing development.” Funny, how a business called “Winemaker’s Shop” started with beer. A lot of great things start with beer, to be fair. So do a lot of bad ones, like my first marriage. But the fact remains that the business can’t sell alcohol. This aided the creation of their soda. But there was one more factor that tipped the scales. According to Francis, every summer there is a farmer’s market that sets up shop right outside the business. He recounts how the market would take away both sales and parking from The Winemaker’s Shop. Scott Francis’s wife and co-owner, Nina Hawranick, thought “On a hot day, what’s better than a nice, cool soda over ice?” So last summer, they started producing their wine-flavored sodas and selling them at that same farmer’s market.

It’s pretty easy once you have it explained to you why the soda tastes like wine… because it almost is. Francis tells us they simply take the fruity summer wine grape juice kits, force carbonate the liquid, and add some sugar. Voila. Wine soda. So they’re literally making the soda from the same elements from which you could make wine. You’d just need to add water and yeast instead. Theoretically, you could buy one of their kits and also make the soda yourself if you got the proportions right and had the tools to carbonate it. “You don’t find wine soda in stores,” says Francis. No you don’t, Ivan. The only wine soda I’ve ever had previously was when I poured Zinfandel in my Sprite. But in fairness to me, I was already pretty drunk. Francis notes they usually have around 12 flavors of wine soda at a given time with Green Apple Riesling and Black Raspberry Merlot being the most popular. We went with the up-and-comer, Raspberry Dragon Fruit Shiraz, mostly because you just don’t find Dragon Fruit in soda. It was designed with the idea of the bitterness in the raspberry interacting with the sweetness of the dragon fruit. Francis drops the best quote of our interview right before we hang up, saying Winemaker’s Shop wine soda “gives people a break from alcohol and allows them to drink early in the morning.” Amen.

Where to get: The Winemaker’s Shop sodas are sold at the company’s store in Columbus, Ohio, as well as several other outlets in the area. Unless you’re close to Columbus, this is one craft soda you’ll have to pick up on a road trip.

Nose: Black raspberry; Berry Juicy Juice. Very fruity, lots of berry scents going on.

Taste: Raspberry; berry wine spritzer. This confuses your taste buds because you expect a raspberry soda flavor, but instead get more of a berry wine spritzer/sweet champagne taste. There’s definitely a fermented alcohol-like flavor to this, akin to wine. The dragon fruit isn’t really apparent in the flavor profile, but then again, dragonf ruit doesn’t have a lot of flavor with which to begin. The raspberry presents itself in more of a generic berry form and has lots of fruity berry notes. Imagine a white wine sangria with blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry flavors; that’s the best description I can give you of this soda’s flavor.

Finish: Fine carbonation with the same berry flavor from the soda’s body that tails off. Not a lot that’s different on the finish.

Rating: This is really impressive and interesting, both in concept and flavor. A wine-flavored soda? Who does that? What really stands out though, is that this actually tastes like a berry-flavored wine. I’m not entirely convinced this doesn’t have alcohol in it. That’s how much like wine it tastes. The berry taste is apparent throughout the beginning, middle, and end of each sip. “Raspberry dragon fruit” is the flavor on the label, but we taste a cornucopia of berries in this. I liken it to a white wine sangria allowed to soak in the flavors from blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries. What you’re likely tasting here is the influence that Shiraz wine grape juice has on the raspberry. I mean, I can’t get drunk off this right? This is blowing my mind. What I’d tweak about this soda is the raspberry. I’d like to taste that sweet, fruity raspberry flavor with its mellow acidity as opposed to a generic berry flavor. Upping the raspberries in the recipe probably wouldn’t hurt. The fact that it tastes like wine might also be a turn off to soda drinkers. But if you’re drinking wine soda and you don’t like wine, you were probably held back a grade at some point. The Winemaker’s Shop has created one of the most unique takes on soda being bottled today. It closes the gap between the beer and wine market and the craft soda community for a beverage with mass appeal. It accomplishes what it sets out to do: it tastes like fruity wine. It’s almost uncanny. I don’t grasp the science behind it, but I don’t have to and neither do you. This is one you have to experience to understand.

Ipswich Ale Brewery: Orange Cream

History: Along the northern shore of Massachusetts where the cold, salty waves crash against the sand of Crane Beach, sits the small city of Ipswich. It was 1991 when locals Paul Silva and Jim Bovae were tired of drinking same old beer in the same old places. So they started their own spot to make beer their way. This was the founding of Ipswich Ale Brewery. “We were one of the first local breweries on the North Shore,” says Ipswich Ale Brewery Marketing and Event Manager, Mary Gormley. As one might expect with a brewery, Ipswich coasted on their beer sales for a long time. It wasn’t until current Ipswich Ale Brewery President Rob Martin took over that a few changes started to take place. Gormley tells us Martin has been with the brewery since its inception doing everything from brewing the beer to driving the delivery truck. His most important change in our eyes? Free beer Friday. I wish I wasn’t kidding, but I am; no, it was soda. He wanted something for the kids to drink. Gormley recalls how serious he was about this when testing the initial soda recipes. “I don’t think he even let an adult try it,” she said. Martin first introduced soda in 2000 under the name “Mercury Soda Pop” because Mercury Brewing Company is the parent company of Ipswich Ale Brewing. It was only recently that the soda was renamed “Ipswich Soda Pop.” Makes more sense, right? I’d like to market myself as Brad Pitt, but in reality I’m a dude who just ate mac and cheese over his sink like a rat. I embrace it. Anyway, I’m single. As for the soda, Ipswich has up to as many as ten flavors at a given time, with plans for more. Gormley says the brewery will soon be opening its own restaurant and will be featuring exclusive in-house soda flavors that, if they test well, could be bottled in the future. All Ipswich Soda is caffeine-free, gluten-free, and made with pure cane sugar. Root beer and orange cream are the top-sellers, according to Gormley. If you’re in the Ipswich area, stop in for a popular West Coast IPA and order up one of those in-house sodas for us. In the meantime, we’ll try this one for you.

Where to get: Unfortunately for the masses, the appeal of some of these little soda bottles is… you gotta be there to try it, man. Ipswich Ale Brewery is located at 2 Brewery Place, Ipswich, MA 01938. North Shore, Massachusetts: you’re in luck. The rest of us: time to plan a road trip. But hey, you can always beg the brewery (we did).

Nose: Orange Creamsicle; Lifesaver Orange Swirl Pops (R.I.P.). Lots of creamy orange vanilla smells. What you want going on in your nose with an orange cream soda.

Taste: Orange soda; vanilla; creaminess; tartness. At the beginning of each sip, this soda is distinctly orange in flavor, more of a standard orange soda than orange cream. Then there’s a fast rush of sugar with light carbonation and the soda’s flavor transforms into what’s on the label. You taste sweet orange creamsicle rich in vanilla and orange rind flavors. You also get a little bit of lingering acidity and tartness for balance. The orange flavor is bold near the end of each sip just before the finish. It’s like a rollercoaster of orange, then creamy vanilla-orange, and back to classic orange again. The classic orange flavor in this is more potent than most orange creams.

Finish: Intense creamy vanilla encased in a thin coating of orange. Exquisite. Best part of the soda.

Rating: What works about Ipswich Orange Cream Soda is that it has both creamy vanilla and bold orange flavors in it. There’s even a little bit of tartness that you expect with standard orange soda, but not often present in orange cream sodas. It works really well in tandem with the signature orange creamsicle taste to provide balance in the flavor profile. The orange flavor in this is executed to near perfection, while the creamy vanilla really shines on the finish. The only drawback we can find with this soda is the tartness on the backend of each sip. It lingers just a touch too long and, at times, comes off a little bitter. But this is a minor gripe for an excellent orange cream soda that should you should put on your radar. On the soda side of things, Ipswich Ale Brewing is known for their orange cream and it shows. Its flavors are luscious and robust and it’s mouth feel is pleasing. I wish the same could’ve been said for my Friday night. Tinder really fed me a monster this weekend. Do yourself a favor and find a way to get a hold of this somehow. That big orange flavor is a component more orange creams would be well-served to try and one Ipswich has already bottled and readied for your mouth.

Roman’s Italian Soda: Sour Apple

History: “It tastes good and it smells good.” Not a bad start if the words of Romano’s Italian Soda founder, Ken Pastega, are true. Pastega grew up in the soda business. He says his family worked for PepsiCo. for 65 years, owning as many as four franchises at a given time. A one-time marketing executive for the soda giant, Pastega was constantly exposed to new trends and flavors, and it was that sense for innovation that came in handy one day when visiting a coffee shop. He noticed the barista pouring hand-made Italian sodas for the shop’s customers and loved that each soda was slightly different. Well, Pastega is of Italian heritage himself. But you knew that, right? I mean, his last name is almost Pasta. He also already had all that Pepsi bottling equipment at his Medford, Oregon plant. So in 2005 in Corvallis, Oregon, he founded Romano’s Italian Soda, naming it after his Italian grandfather. When asked what makes it Italian soda, he quips, “’cause I’m Italian!” He also credits Jones Soda for being another inspiration for entering the craft soda game. All Romano’s Italian Sodas are made with pure cane sugar and no caffeine. Pastega recounts the company being ahead of the curve on the pure cane sugar soda boom, making the switch from corn syrup to real sugar in 2007. He adds, “I always liked Pepsi better with cane sugar than corn sugar.” The family sold its four Pepsi franchises in 2011. Romano’s started out in fountains at local 711 gas stations then gradually moved to plastic bottles and then glass. Today, the company makes six flavors. Pastega tells us that Sour Apple, our review here, is actually fairly low on the totem pole in terms of sales at fifth overall. But sometimes you just gotta give the lesser flavors some love. This same logic also applies to dating, ladies. And lucky for all beautiful women out there… I’m single AND I write really good reviews of soda on the Internet. Note: need to work on sales pitch. Speaking of sales pitches, Pastega made sure to let us know he wanted his sour apple soda to actually taste a little sour. A novel concept, I know, but one this flavor often misses in the craft soda market. Use Green Apple Jolly Ranchers as a comparison. Pastega says, “We tried to duplicate the feel of the candy in the person’s mouth, the smell of the candy, and the flavor of the candy.” And I think you’d be letting Pastega down if you didn’t try his soda on ice cream. Near the end of our interview, he did a solid five minutes on that topic alone. We’ll do you one better and put in more than five in on this tasting.

Where to get: Romano’s Italian Soda is mostly sold in the Northwest Oregon region. It’s sold nationally through Harry and David stores. You can also purchase it online via Summit City Soda.

Nose: Definitely smells exactly like the label says: sour apple. If you’ve ever tried sour apple Dum Dums, smells very similar to that.

Taste: Sour green apple; green apple Jolly Ranchers; lots of little carbonation. This tastes like sour green apple candy in liquid form. There’s a great balance of sweetness and tartness in the apple. It’s very similar to the flavor of Jolly Rancher Green Apple hard candy. The carbonation is light and frothy, but there’s a lot of it at the beginning of each sip that gives way to a flavorful sour apple taste on the palate. I have to say the apple flavor really captures the essence of Granny Smith Apples. Impressive.

Finish: Slightly acidic and tart green apple. The sour notes definitely show themselves more at the end of each drink.

Rating: Romano’s Italian Soda really captures what you’ll be expecting in a sour apple soda. It’s apple up front with a tart, sour candy bite at the end. The green apple flavor is crisp and refreshing, aided by the soda’s carbonation. The bubbles are light and frothy, and once they subside you get blasted with flavorful sour green apple. For a soda with such a high sugar level (45 grams), the tartness and authentic apple flavor help to keep the sweetness in balance. The tart green apple notes evoke memories of Green Apple Jolly Ranchers. It also tastes kind of like a non-alcoholic version of Smirnoff Ice Green Apple… not that this adult man… knows what those taste like. This really works on all levels. The only drawback we can think of is that it might be a little too tart for some drinkers. I’d curtail the acidity on the finish just slightly. But this shouldn’t be an issue for most drinkers. The soda’s bright green color just adds to the appeal. The flavor is robust, but probably isn’t something I’d recommend drinking fast. Savor and enjoy the experience. Romano’s Italian Soda is still a growing brand, but one that pleasantly surprises the taste buds with this flavor. You’d be silly not to try this sweet and sour soda. Pucker up.

Dublin Bottling Works: Cherry Limeade

History: Dublin Bottling Works has been producing quality soda for over 120 years, a company with a rich history and a connection to one particular soda that everyone knows. It was that same soda that almost killed it. Dublin Bottling Works was founded in 1891 by Sam Houston Prim in, of course, Dublin, Texas. It was that same year the company began bottling a brand new soda with a unique taste: Dr. Pepper. This is where the term “Dublin Dr. Pepper” comes from, Dr. Pepper with pure cane sugar instead of corn syrup. It may have been Prim who founded the bottling plant, but it was 62-year employee Bill Kloster who really defined the company as its general manager. Dublin Head Soda Jerk, Kenny Horton, recalls when the price of granulated pure cane sugar skyrocketed in the 1970’s, it was Kloster who refused to let his company switch to high fructose corn syrup, despite the potential for much higher profits. Things were going well for Dublin Bottling Works. Their success carried them into the early 2010’s. They were the Little Red Riding Hood of Dublin, Texas. But the Big Bad Wolf came calling, and in this story, the wolf got what it wanted. Dr. Pepper/Snapple is the nation’s third-largest soda creator. They tried their hand at a cane sugar version of their soda called “Heritage Dr. Pepper.” It didn’t resonate with people like Dublin Dr. Pepper. In June 2011, the beverage giant sued Dublin Bottling Works. According to Horton, they claimed Dublin Bottling Works was “diluting the brand” with Dublin Dr. Pepper. On January 11, 2012, Dublin Dr. Pepper came to an end. Horton recalls 15 employees being laid off. By now Kloster’s son, also named Bill Kloster, was the company’s owner. He remains so to this day. Horton notes, “He could’ve easily closed the doors and it would’ve been cheaper…. But he wanted to maintain the legacy his father started.” So Dublin Bottling Works went back to the drawing board.

After about four months of research and development, Dublin Bottling Works reemerged with a new line of pure cane sugar sodas. Today the company has 12 different flavors, including classics like root beer and cream soda and mysteries like Fru Fru Berry. Horton says root beer and black cherry are the two top-sellers. But we wanted to review something a little more daring, something off the beaten path. Enter Dublin Cherry Limeade. Horton tells me over the phone that the Dublin soda jerks used to make cherry limeades with real cherries and limes at the company’s old soda fountain in the 1930’s. The company wanted to replicate that flavor as much as possible in bottled form. This soda is wildly red. Like, I drank an entire bottle and I’m pretty sure my stomach glows in the dark now. But that’s fine. They wanted to make the flavor smooth, Horton notes. “We definitely wanted the lemon-lime, but not an overpowering lemon-lime.” Fun fact: Cherry Limeade is the most popular Dublin flavor at Cost Plus World Market. Alright, that’s enough information. Let’s drink.

Where to get: Dublin Bottling Works soda is sold throughout Texas, including HEB, United, and Kroger stores in addition to Cost Plus World Market. You can find it online for purchase from the Dublin store (24) or Soda Emporium (6) or (singles).

Nose: Lime; cherry limeade; cherry grenadine.

Taste: Sweet cherry; tart cherry; mild lime. This is a soda anchored by a classic cherry limeade flavor. Think Sonic Route 44 Cherry Limeade, only a little sweeter. The cherry flavor in this is more like the juice Maraschino cherries sit in. It’s got that sweet, candy cherry flavor on which most cherry limeades are built. The carbonation is light, but flush on the tongue. You get a sweet cherry flavor first, followed by a rush of carbonation that helps transition the cherry taste to a tart one. That tartness then transforms once again and this is where you taste the lime. It’s subtle, but certainly noticeable. Just a squeeze.

Finish: Mild cherry with undertones of tart lime that change in strength depending on the sip.

Rating: Dublin Cherry Limeade Soda tastes exactly like you want it to taste. It really does have that classic cherry limeade flavor. We even let one of our grandfathers try it and he’s so old, he’s basically disintegrating; and he said it tasted like his childhood. We think that warrants the label of “retro” flavor. The sweet, Maraschino cherry syrup flavor is just right. It’s crisp, sweet, and delicious. Not overly sugary and syrupy. The accompanying tart cherry flavor provides excellent balance, while maintaining enough sweetness to keep the soda refreshing and flavorful. The final, mildly bitter lime finish completes a simple, yet brilliantly executed flavor profile. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing the lime brought out just a little more. But alas, this is absolutely stellar. We could spill more eloquent prose about its flavor and distinctly vintage label, but the bottom line is this a must-try for all ages and anyone with the slightest interest in soda. Cherry and lime are two flavors meant for each other, always waiting for their next honeymoon. Dublin Bottling Works has married the two tastes together in a way that delights the palate and begs for a bulk purchase. Don’t waste pairing this with alcohol. You’d be selling yourself short. Life is too short not to drink good soda. This is one for the bucket list.

Gazosa La Fiorenzana: Pompelmo

History: Hailing from the Alps of Switzlerand comes a soda that’s been brewed the same way since 1921, a hidden gem tucked away in the little village of Grono located in the Grisons canton. It’s been traveling over 4,900 miles and longer than 14.5 hours to reach America, and now it’s here… for the first time ever. That’s right, Five Star Soda is the first American media outlet to get its hands on Gazosa La Fiorenzana. Francesco Tonna started Gazosa with four original flavors: Pompelmo (grapegruit), Limone (lemon), Mandarino (mandarin orange), and  Lampone (raspberry). Today there are a total of eight. It was in 2002 when ex-footballer (soccer) and Polpenzisch founder Stephan Keller descended from the Netherlands to a bar in Zurich during his time playing for FC Zurich. It was there he sampled Gazosa for the first time. He and his immaculate beard realized immediately he couldn’t let this tasting be his last and decided to begin importing the Swiss soda to the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Meanwhile, I didn’t put pants on until noon today. His description of Gazosa paints the company as the epitome of little mom and pop productions. He jokes, “Swiss small is different to U.S. small.” First of all, the business has stayed in the Ponzio-Tonna family and is currently in its fourth generation. According to the Keller, the soda’s label remains unchanged. The company still uses refillable swing-top bottles, a reason, Keller adds, that Gazosa will probably never be available in America. People in America definitely probably don’t have the patience for refillable bottles. The company also has no marketing budget and relies soley on word-of-mouth. But what we all care about is taste. To that, Keller added, “Our flavors are pure and old fashioned, please don’t expect any mixes or addition of vanilla or anything.” Like many soda bottlers outside of America, a majority (six) of Gazosa’s flavors are citrus, including all four original flavors. There’s a simple reason for this. You ready? Keller explains the secret, saying, “Francesco Tonna just used what he had available, experimented and tested the flavors amongst his loyal drinkers.” Mind blowing, right? What we’re getting at is this little, independent Swiss family business has been making soda the old fashioned way with real ingredients for a long time. They might just be one of the soda universe’s best kept secrets.

We wanted our first Gazosa review to remain true to the original four flavors, but also to be a little adventurous. We went with Pompelmo. We figured if you can make a divisive flavor like grapefruit taste good in soda form, then you probably know what you’re doing. Turns out Pompelmo was the second flavor Tonna cooked up and Keller notes it’s actually the original Limone with real grapefruit added to the recipe for some added bitterness. You can actually see bits of pulp in the bottle. If you’re curious (even if you’re not), Pompelmo means “grapefruit” in Italian. As with all Gazosa citrus flavors, the fruit comes “from Italian traders to the south of Switzerland,” says Keller. The flavor is the company’s international best-seller.

Where to get: Gazosa La Fiorenzana is available at many fine Swiss restaurants and cafes. It’s currently distributed only in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.

Nose: Grapefruit. Real grapefruit. It’s like cutting open a grapefruit and holding the peel up to your nose. It’s actually pretty remarkable. There’s also some lemon on the nose as well.

Taste: Sweet lemon; tartness; grapefruit; bitter carbonation. There’s a bittersweet element to this soda that authentically ties the whole drink together. The lemon is more prominent in the flavor profile than the nose, but the bitterness of real lemon shines through in combination with the tart sweetness of a grapefruit. The carbonation is a rush of intensity at the beginning of each sip that amplifies the bitter lemon notes. This gradually fades into a sweeter lemon-grapefruit hybrid. The lemon at this point becomes more candied akin to a traditional lemon-lime soda, but the grapefruit really does taste like real grapefruit juice. It’s bitter, then it’s sweet and ends with a mild tartness. An authentic citrus soda.

Finish: Tart grapefruit with a light dusting of sugar that gradually fades. The linger on this is perfect.

Rating: The best grapefruit soda in the world may very well hail from Switzerland. Gazosa has taken one of America’s most divisive fruits and presented it in a soda with juice to taste fresh, enough tartness to remain true to the lemon and grapefruit, and enough sweetness to keep soda purists happy. It’s very rich in citrus. The juices are very prominent. The grapefruit juice really holds its flavor. If you don’t like grapefruit, you wouldn’t like this. But why would you be drinking grapefruit soda to begin with, you weirdo? The lemon goes through more of a transformation, at one point bitter, and at another much sweeter. Americans aren’t used to sodas that garner a large portion of their sweetness from the natural sugars in the juices. Compared to American soda, even some of the artisinal fruit ones, this probably tastes more like a carbonated juice than soda if I had to choose. But then there’s that distinctive soda fizz and sugar rush on some sips. It’s a nice mixture. The Swiss have beautiful women and make beautiful soda. That’s already two reasons for me to find a new girlfriend in Switzerland. This is a rare treat for us at Five Star to review something from so far away. The only sad thing is that unless you’re heading to Switzerland, this will be out of your reach. The one that got away. Maybe you should go chase after it. Just maybe. Fünf sterne.

lemon

El Manantial: ToniCol

History: “I don’t know how to explain this, but it is unique,” says ToniCol Project Manager and third-generation family businessman Tobías Ricardo Lozano Solorza. That’s a direct quote from someone within the company. Even they can’t explain their soda. So we’re off to a fun start. To be fair, Solorza did try, saying “It is something between Coke, Dr. Pepper and IBC Cream soda.” We always like to start every review in a unique way, but what we’re saying here is that El Manatial’s ToniCol is different. That’s actually the company’s catch phrase, “es diferente.” But ToniCol’s history is a rich one, dating all the way back to 1887. On an unrelated note, here’s a video of the soft drink’s history that looks like it was edited in 1887. Let us educate you on some Mexican soft drink history, filled with rivalries, friendships, and our superhero, Ángel Solorza González, also known as Don Angel. The story begins in the town of El Rosario in Sinaloa, Mexico. There were two soft drink companies: La Eureka and La Azteca. La Eurkea was far superior, and according to Solorza, its boss wanted to create a “Vanilla-flavored soft drink, with a touch of other essences.” He called the soda “TonyCo,” after his own nickname, Tony. You see, bossman was a savvy entrepreneur, but he was also a little self-absorbed and cutthroat. Don Angel started working for La Eurkea in 1925 in a different city, but after learning his youngest brother would need a leg amputation, he needed to return to El Rosario. Despite the family emergency, La Eureka’s boss fired Don Angel. With one of the best businessmen in the Mexican soft drink industry now a free agent, guess who came calling? La Azteca.

After beginning work for La Azteca, Don Angel quickly began increasing the company’s value and quality. It didn’t take long for La Eureka to take notice. The bossman’s son, Joaquín Espinosa de los Monteros approached La Azteca and inquired about merging the two companies. Side note: why did everyone in Mexico used to have names longer than my wife’s credit card statement? Moving along. Long story short, the merger happened and La Azteca’s owner, Enrique Casteñeda, Monteros and Don Angel owned the new company three ways. In 1947, a fourth shareholder was added and the company’s name was changed to the current “El Manantial.” It was also the year Don Angel’s son and Solorza’s grandpa, Ángel Solorza, designed the current logo and branding for Tonicol. But remember, back then the name was TonyCo. It stayed that way until the 1960’s when the Mexican Ministry of Health banned the name because, according to Solorza, “it confused the consumers, making them believe that the drink had curative attributes.” It was also in the 60’s when Ángel purchased complete ownership of El Manantial. Today, Solorza’s mother and her siblings own the company. As for what goes into this vanilla soda, Solorza elected not to answer that question. So I guess we’ll have to unravel the mystery ourselves.

Where to get: According to Solorza, ToniCol is available to purchase for Mexico natives at major retailers like Wal-Mart, Seven Eleven, and Soriana. For Americans, your best bet is to order online through Alegro Foods.

Nose: Hard to place. A little bit of orange cream and, oddly enough, carrot cake.

Taste: Carrot cake; sweet orange; light creaminess; vanilla; strong sugar. Whoa, this is different and weird. I definitely taste carrot cake. So much so that we put it in the photos. But there’s also kind of an artificial vanilla-orange cream flavor as well. There’s a creaminess to the orange, but not necessarily a creamy mouth feel. The mouth feel is very much a traditional cola in the sense that there’s some bitter notes and a rush of carbonation that aids the bitterness. Very sugary, borderline syrupy. This is very sweet. Man, I can’t shake that carrot cake flavor. It’s just… that’s what it is. Strange.

Finish: Tart sugar with orange undertones. If there is such a thing as orange-flavored sugar (eh), that’s what the aftertaste is like. It’s a tart sweetness. Odd, just like everything else about this soda.

Rating: ToniCol is hugely popular down in Mexico. I didn’t know that once you crossed the border, the flavors could change so much. I wouldn’t call this a cola, despite what your brain tells you based off the name. It brands itself as “vanilla soda,” but I wouldn’t call it a cream soda either, even though there are some slightly creamy orange notes in this. It’s just very puzzling. Here’s what we can tell you definitely about ToniCol: it’s incredibly sweet; it tastes like carrot cake; and there are some syrupy vanilla-orange cream flavors going on in the background. First, the sweetness. It’s intense, so intense there’s a syrupy taste tinged with orange. It could really stand to lose some of the sugar rush or add quite a few bitter notes. Next, carrot cake. Never in my life did I expect to taste something this vivid and weird outside of a Rocketfizz brand soda. I don’t know if this flavor was intentional, but you can take my wife on a date if that’s not exactly what you taste too. She’s with another guy now, but the offer still stands. Last, the puzzling orange cream flavor. Don’t think traditional orange cream. Think syrupy orange mixed with vanilla frosting. Not necessarily flavors that make you rush to pull your wallet out. If you want to try something really off the beaten path, ToniCol is worth a shot. Look, I commend ToniCol for being different, but I’m not sure it’s the kind of different I’d mess around with beyond a one-night-stand.

Roots Soda Co.: Kaleidoscope

History: “The landscape of soda is one of ruin.” Bleak words from the founder of Roots Soda Co., Mark Pool. Even today in the midst of a resurgence where craft and gourmet soda are putting more and more pressure on the big boys, there is still a monopoly. But before the two mass manufactured brands put a strangle hold on the soda market, your favorite ice cold bottled beverage was made at local soda fountains and bottlers were bountiful from town to town. Ingredients were real. Flavors were unique. Competition was fun and not cutthroat. Roots Soda asks, “what if that never went away?” That’s the mentality they have when making soda. Tired of the current state of the industry, Mark Pool founded Roots Soda Co. in April 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s an art to them. You get the sense that there’s this intense drive behind the company. This mission to bring soda back to its roots. They note on their website that they want “to make the best soda possible using and honouring only the best ingredients, and sending it off into a future yet unimagined.” I like to read that quote set to triumphant piano music. Are these guys soda jerks or power ballad writers? One thing’s for sure: they’re motivated to create. Pool notes “At Roots it’s not so much about one ingredient standing out, it’s about the ingredients coming together to make something new.” Pool initially sought to create a carbonated lemonade, a popular flavor outside of America, but felt more inspired by cola and how all of its flavors coalesce to form a signature taste. That really appealed to Roots and led to its two flavors. As you might expect, they’re well thought out, a little strange, and a lot inventive.

Hoodoo and Kaleidoscope. No, those are not the names of strippers at the dodgy club downtown. They’re the two flavors Roots Soda Co. produces. “The names for soda seemed a bit tired,” Pool adds. Hoodoo came first. Pool likens it to Jekyll and Hyde. It’s a soda that both burns and refreshes. Perhaps its no surprise then that Hoodoo took months to perfect. Kaleidoscope is the golden child of the bunch… at least it was initially. The first test batch came out perfect. According to Pool, the flavor was designed to evoke memories of childhood summers or going to a music festival for the first time. But Pool can’t take credit for the idea behind it. It was his buddy Jon Seller who “suggested a soda with strawberry, orange, basil and balsamic vinegar.” It tested off the charts at the farmers market. The problems came later and on a bigger scale. Strawberries proved to be a real bitch for Roots Soda. Basically they had to either double the amount of strawberries to maintain the soda’s optimal flavor and struggle with money or stick with the original recipe, lose a little bit of quality and hit their margins. Ultimately, Roots went with option one and had to re-arrange “everything” to make the money work. “We felt that there is too much stuff that gets made just to turn a profit. We wanted to make something we genuinely cared about,” said Pool. One thing’s for sure: these dudes have guts and they’re not afraid to screw up. They’ll have more flavors out in the future. Knowing their precision and high standards, it’ll likely take some time. Until then, we present to you: Kaleidoscope.

Where to get: In keeping with their old school vibe, currently Roots Soda is only sold at physical locations. And unfortunately, only a lucky few in the United Kingdom have access. If you’re in the area, here’s a list of where to find the goods. The company hinted online sales may be coming, so always be on the lookout.

Nose: Very tropical. Like a fruit punch. There’s a vey distinct smell of mango in this bottle. That’s interesting because there’s no mango in Kaleidoscope. It’s really pleasant though. Definitely smells like something fruity you used to drink as a kid.

Taste: Tropical juices; orange; balsamic; mild tartness. This starts out with those same tropical notes you smell when you hold Kaleidoscope under your nose. Like a fruit punch in the beginning that smoothly transitions into more natural flavors of juice. That fruit punch flavor really reminds me of Fruitopia Fruit Integration, a tropical soft drink from the 90’s. You can really taste the authentic orange juice at the end of each sip too. Orange is the most prominent of the ingredients in this you’ll taste. The natural juices render the carbonation very light, almost frothy with tiny bubbles. The tartness of the balsamic and orange provide a nice balance with the strawberry. For a soda with balsamic vinegar, this doesn’t taste like balsamic vinegar. That should make most drinkers happy. You’ll primarily taste tropical fruit punch that gets balanced out with tart, slightly acidic tasting notes.

Finish: Slightly bitter orange. This is where you can taste the basil, ever so slightly. There’s a little bit of an herbal flavor with the orange too.

Rating: For a soda with only a handful of natural ingredients, Roots Soda Co.’s Kaleidoscope tastes surprisingly like a more mature version of fruit punch. The orange juice is the most prominent element in the soda, interacting with the strawberry to impart a sweetness and the balsamic to provide some bitterness. This is sweet, then tart. The amount of sugar isn’t overpowering. In fact, it works really nicely. The flavors here are really dynamite. Balsamic is an ingredient that might scare some people because of its strong bittersweet flavor, but it’s not strong enough in the flavor profile here to make you notice it. This doesn’t have any sort of vinegar taste. What the balsamic does is help provide some tartness with the orange to balance out the sugar levels. The balsamic here is like the last kid in a big family. It’s there. It has an effect. You’ll probably even like it. But most of you will forget about it. And one day it’ll end up writing soda reviews on the Internet *cries*. This is a modern-day gourmet fruit punch-esque artisanal soda that touches all the right fruity notes with an impressively small list of ingredients. I wouldn’t mind tasting the strawberry profile a little bit more, but the use of orange is exquisite. This is truly one of the most inventive and flavorful fruit sodas out there. We can’t recommend it enough. Roots Soda Co. is currently a two-soda business in Edinburgh, Scotland. If they keep making flavors as good as Kaleidoscope, new creations will be inevitable. We hope they’re just getting started.